How To Do Difficult Things

Tools and techniques I've used and learnt to build mental resilience, and do the things that have the potential to set me apart from those who won't.

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man standing on a mountain how to do difficult things

There are times every day where I have to do difficult things, and I want to give up. Sometimes they’re boring, sometimes difficult, sometimes they require more energy and thought than I can muster at the time, or sometimes I would just rather be doing something else.

It’s one of the challenges of our generation — we have such a high standard of living that not doing the hard stuff is easy.

Don’t feel like doing your laundry? Send it off to the laundromat. Hell, don’t feel like driving to the laundromat? Order a delivery driver on an app.

Don’t feel like grocery shopping? Just order your groceries online.

Or maybe you don’t even feel like cooking? Get food delivered to your door.

Did that food make a mess? Just order a cleaner to arrive the next day, from your couch.

Hmmm, now, what movie to watch? Let’s have a look at the multitude of streaming sites available.

Something interesting popped up in the movie that you want to know about. Get the answer to by reaching for your phone. Ah, no, it’s out of reach. Luckily, just shout, “Hey Alexa.”

Now let’s think about that process happening twenty years ago. Don’t feel like grocery shopping? You go hungry. Don’t feel like cooking? Doesn’t matter, you don’t have groceries.

You get the point.

Life has become exceedingly easy. That must be having an affect on our brains, and potentially the ability to endure difficult parts of our life. It’s part of the reason I love running. You get to challenge yourself in a way that few things do. There are always points in a run where you have to make choices, Do I turn left here and add an extra half hour and a bit of a gnarly hill, or, take the short route home and watch a movie instead. Making those hard decisions and slogging it out gives me a little kick of satisfaction, because I know it gives me a step up over most other people who stopped when it was convenient.

Building mental resilience

I really believe it helps build mental resilience too. In times where I need to draw down on a bit of will power, I know I can make the hard decisions if it comes down to it. It’s like stretching a muscle — those little changes you make every day add up and suddenly after a month you’re touching your toes.

Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, this has been part of my psyche since I was a kid. When I was training in the gym, I’d say things to myself like, one more rep, or you’re never going to be the rugby player you want to be. Hey, I am South African after all! There were always micro-challenges that had consequences. I wasn’t leaving it up to chance by not doing just one more rep.

The central governor theory

As I’ve grown a bit older and, erm, wiser (?), the concept of being able to squeeze out one more rep has intrigued me. Most times, when I’m nearing the end of a mentally or physically draining activity — especially if it’s competitive — I’m able to eek a bit more energy out for just one last effort. But an hour before this when the finish line was still just a figure of imagination, you couldn’t possibly imagine speeding up. You think to yourself, I’m spent.

A scientist named Tim Noakes has developed a theory that the human brain has a “central governor” which controls our physical limit. He claims that the mind starts shutting the body down when it’s nearing a point where there might be long term body harm being done.

On the rev-counter in a car, there are those red lines at the top end of the counter which indicate a dangerous operating level for the car. Imagine your car’s computer had a limit set so that no matter how hard you put your foot down on the throttle, the rev counter wouldn’t go into the red — the computer would stop it. Professor Noakes hypothesizes that this is what the brain does to your body, through a central governor. Noakes goes into detail in his paper, but the just of his theory is that at peak efforts when your body is going into hypoxia (either acute or chronic), the central governor limits the amount of skeletal muscles that are able to be recruited. In more simple terms: when the heart is nearing the red rev lines, the central governor ensures it doesn’t enter the red by reducing the amount of muscles that need blood from it. The result? You have less muscles to use to keep you moving. You’re effectively forced to stop or at least slow down. The central governor has kept you going in the long term by ensuring you don’t kill yourself through heart failure in the short term.

I can hear you saying, “But what about the last effort just before the finish line?” That’s the mind realizing that the demanding activity you’re going through is coming to an end, so it releases the limits its set and you suddenly have access to muscles that weren’t being recruited before.

Noakes has been known to have some interesting theories, though. So, I went a bit deeper on the topic. Alex Hutchinson’s book, Endure, goes into the limits of human potential. I’d highly recommend it. In the book, he confirms my thoughts that the limit that the central governor sets must be elastic. That would agree with the idea that athletes in general, have a higher pain threshold than most normally-active people. They’re masters at teaching their mind to take a little bit more pain before calling it quits.

Just do one more

A tool I’ve used to trick my mind to keep going — in day to day life and in running — is to just do one more rep. I’m going to use the running example for ease-of-explanation. Occasionally, I’ll near the end of a run and just want to go home. This, despite my training plan saying I’ve got another half hour scheduled for today.

My mind is screaming take me on the shortest route home, now. I make sure my conscious response is always: Come on, just do one more. Sometimes that one more is 5 minutes, sometimes it’s 10 steps, but I say to myself that if you’re going to give up early, then you’re only allowed to do it after you do one more repetition. If you get through that one repetition and you still want to quit, then you’re allowed to, but not before.

I do this for two reasons.

First, in ultra-running it is only on an extremely rare occasion where you will feel great for the entire duration of the race. If you do, you’re likely not running close enough to your potential. There are always highs and lows of emotion, freshness, and motivation. You have to learn that there is a difference between going through one of the troughs of a low period, and your body shutting down on you. If you keep pushing through and slog it through that tough time, you come out and often think to yourself: How did I even consider quitting, I’m feeling so good now. It’s just about the perseverance to get through that bad time, because the roller coaster will climb its way out and you will feel that euphoria again and remember why you love doing this. By training your brain to operate in “the pain cave” you’re making it easier for yourself to push through that tough time next time: I’ve been here, I know what it feels like to be sore and keep going. I can do it now.

Second, you’re teaching yourself to eek out that little bit more. There’s always more in the tank, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.

David Goggins, an ex-Navy Seal and author of You Can’t Hurt Me, writes in his book that when we come to a point where we think, that’s it, I’m done, I can’t go on anymore, we’ve only used around 40% of our actual potential. There’s still another 60% left in the tank. Granted, this is not based on any scientific research, it’s solely based on Goggins’s ability to endure difficult experiences. In his book he tells the story of how he endured extensive amounts of pain and hardship through Navy Seal “hell week”, ultra marathons and life in general, and learned to manipulate his mind to keep going. Though the book is not without its faults, there is definite value to be gained in Goggins’s re-telling of his mental resilience journey.

The truth is, you hardly ever hear of anyone exhausting themselves to death — I’m not sure I ever have. I’d love to hear about them if you have. In extreme tests of human physical ability, people often put themselves in situations where they succumb to the elements, but it is seldom the case that the body itself — external influence aside — simply cannot continue. We have deep reserves.

Next time you’re nearing the end of something difficult, just do one more. You might find that after that one more you’re able to do another, and another, and maybe even another. Even if you can only do one more, that’s one tick in the mental resilience column that wasn’t there before. You’re “one more” closer to building a mind that can endure difficult things, in a world where mental resilience is a scarce resource.

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